Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Secret of Mana Review

Secret of Mana is a remake of SquareSoft’s 1993 SNES action RPG by the same name. It's the second game in the Mana series, following the Game Boy game, Final Fantasy Adventure. The series is not part of any main Final Fantasy game universe, but it does share some things with FF, like Moogles and Chocobos. This remake features new 3D graphics, remixed music, and voice acting. It's available for $40 on PC and PS4, and for $30 on Vita.

The story follows a boy named Randi, who pulls the legendary Sword of Mana out a rock one day, like Excalibur. He was just looking for something to cut some tall grass with, but pulling the sword out unleashed a bunch of monsters onto the world. Now, he must restore the sword’s power by synchronizing it to the 8 Mana seeds, and use it to save the world from evil. Along the way, he meets a girl named Primm and a little Sprite named Poppoi, who join him on his quest. The story is simple and cliche, but it has its moments.

The story is the same as on SNES, but there have been some additions to flesh out the 3 main characters. All-new fully voice acted skits now play at Inns after major story events. After choosing to sleep at an Inn, the heroes will gather around the table and talk about recent events or whatever’s on their mind. Sometimes these skits are funny, sometimes they're serious, and sometimes supporting characters, like Watts the blacksmith and the Elementals, show up for some funny scenes. Inns are where you heal and save, so these skits might play at inconvenient times, but they're very well done and let you to get to know the heroes, so I never skipped them.

The most notable update is the new 3D graphics. The whole game has been recreated in polygonal 3D with “hand-painted” textures. I think the 3D models look pretty good. They are low poly, but they look like 3D versions of the original sprites. The textures do a good job of maintaining the anime look, but they’re displayed in a low resolution, and don't have any kind of effects for specular highlights, reflections, or any kind of bump mapping. The lighting is also very basic, and only a few things cast real-time shadows. The game looks like the low budget Vita game that it is. I don't think it's ugly, but there is definitely a lot of room for improvement.

I don't like the new music a whole lot. I think they took too many liberties with it. Sometimes they add in weird sounds or new parts to it, and none of it actually sounds good. Which is a shame, because the stuff that sounds like the original music sounds pretty good. Thankfully, there is an option to play with high-quality versions of the original SNES music. It still sounds like MIDI music, but it sounds a lot better than it did on the SNES, and much better than the new stuff.

The game also features full voice acting for all dialogue in the game, in both English and Japanese. The English voice acting is pretty bad, so I played with the Japanese VO, which sounds like something out of a 90s PS1 import, but somehow fits the game better. I can at least brush up on my Japanese while playing. You can also turn the VO volume all the way off, if you don't like either one.

Underneath the 3D graphics and remixed music, the game is pretty much the same as it was on SNES. There have only been a few quality of life improvements, like being able to increase the max item limit from 4 to 12 in the options, a new “Action Grid” that's not a grid anymore, and being able to set item and magic shortcuts to the L and R buttons. You still travel from town to town, talk to NPCs, and fight through dungeons to find the Mana seeds. The combat is the same, the weapons and magic are the same, and your party members still get stuck on everything.

The dungeons are usually pretty easy and straightforward. You don't even have to fight many enemies. You can just run past most of them. There are some puzzles, but the most you'll ever be asked to do is find switches to push, or use one of your weapons or magic to get past an obstacle. For example, you can use your axe to break stalagmites in cave areas, and use magic to activate crystal orbs, which act like switches. The first few dungeons are pretty simple, and they get more complex as you progress through the game. Sadly, just when the dungeons are getting really good, the quality of them drops off a cliff in the later half of the game.

Secret of Mana was originally supposed to come out on the SNES CD addon, AKA the Nintendo PlayStation. When the system was cancelled, SquareSoft moved the game from CD to cartridge, and cut a bunch of content to fit it in a cart. Some dungeons in the later half of the game are only 2 or 3 rooms, they reuse a bunch of bosses, and don't have anywhere near the build up to them that the earlier ones do. It sucks that it's still like that, but they obviously were not given the budget to fix this in the remake.

At a glance, SoM looks like some kind of 2D Zelda clone, but it's actually much slower paced, and has more RPG elements. The combat in SoM uses a charging system that lets you perform more powerful attacks depending on how long you hold down the attack button. After a normal attack, your action meter drops to 0% and starts to quickly fill back up to 100%. A 100% attack does normal damage, and anything below does a lot less damage. It's not percentage based. Even if you hit the button at 80%, you just do less damage, not 80% of your normal damage, so it doesn't pay to mash buttons. You can hold the attack button down after a normal attack to charge up and perform special attacks. Depending on how many times you’ve upgraded your weapon, you'll be able to charge up multiple meters for even stronger attacks. There's a lot of behind the scenes dice rolling, so your gear and levels affect your hit rate and damage. It's a far cry from the skill-based combat of a Zelda game.

Secret of Mana also has 8 different schools of magic, represented by the 8 elementals that will join you along your quest. Randi can't use magic, but Primm and Poppoi each get their own set of spells. Primm mostly gets healing and stat boosting spells, while Poppoi mostly gets attack spells. Each elemental gains experience when you use their magic, so you can level them up for even stronger spells. You mostly rescue elementals at the end of a dungeon, so you'll be getting new ones even late into the game. Since every elemental starts at level 0, leveling a late game Elemental to the max of level 8 can be an hour plus grind.

The game has been patched now, but it was very buggy when I played through it. I lost about 4 hours worth of progress because of crashes. I came across bugs that prevented my party from attacking, got my characters stuck in weird poses, and one bug trapped me in a dialogue loop. I almost quit playing the game after the 3rd or so time it crashed on me in the middle of a dungeon. Hopefully the patch fixed these problems.

New graphics, music, and VO aside, this game just isn't as great as I remember it being. It's a slightly above average SNES ARPG. It has lovable characters and decent dungeons, but the story doesn't hold a candle to some of Square’s other SNES games, like FF6 and Chrono Trigger, the combat isn't very satisfying, and the missing content is a real bummer. If you're okay with that and the Vita quality graphics, you might find something entertaining in the world of Mana.